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Serbia’s lithium ambitions: Navigating realities against Norway’s oil wealth

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Ana Brnabić, the President of the Serbian Parliament, drew parallels between Serbia’s potential lithium industry and Norway’s oil wealth during her recent visit to Valjevo. This sentiment echoes previous statements made by government officials, including President Aleksandar Vučić and Minister of Mining and Energy Dubravka Đedović Handanović, suggesting that the Jadar project led by British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto holds significant economic promise for Serbia.

The primary argument put forth by officials in support of the lithium mining project near Loznica and Krupnje is its potential financial benefits for local residents, workers, and the state budget through mining rent, taxes, and other fees. Rio Tinto has allocated $2.4 billion for mine construction and lithium borate ore refining over the next 15 years, with estimates suggesting that the state could earn around €180 million annually from taxes and mining rents.

While there are expected economic gains from lithium mining and processing, concerns about costs and environmental impact have been raised by the public. However, comparisons between Serbia’s lithium potential and Norway’s oil industry, as made by Brnabić, may be overstated.

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The comparison between lithium in Serbia and oil in Norway fails to acknowledge the vast disparity in revenue and management between the two industries. Norway’s oil revenues amounted to €84.2 billion in 2023, primarily derived from taxes, fees, and ownership income from state-owned companies like Equinor. In contrast, Serbia’s potential revenue from lithium mining would only constitute a fraction of its annual budget, estimated at one percent.

Moreover, Norway’s proactive approach to managing its oil wealth, including the creation of Statoil (now Equinor) to oversee oil and gas resources, stands in contrast to Serbia’s reliance on foreign companies for lithium extraction. While Norway has invested oil revenues into a sovereign wealth fund, Serbia’s plans for lithium revenue utilization remain unclear.

The transparency of Norway’s oil revenue data and operations of state-owned companies far exceeds that of Serbia’s institutions, highlighting another disparity between the two countries. Overall, while Serbia’s lithium industry holds economic potential, comparisons to Norway’s oil wealth may be misleading given the differences in revenue, management, and transparency.

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